Helen Feng, lead singer for Beijing bands Pet Conspiracy and Free the Birds (formerly ZIYO), has been a musical hero of ours ever since this show at MAO Livehouse last year. She has quite the resume: she was an MTV VJ, has had some eclectic radio shows, is a classically trained singer (one of her songs was used in The Mummy 3), and hosted the Beijing edition of Pepsi’s Battle of the Bands, amongst many other projects I’m sure I don’t know about. Anyways, she’s a busy lady. When we heard she was in Shanghai recently, we immediately jumped at the chance to interview her. She slipped through our grasp then, but she was kind enough to answer our questions over email. Check it out.
First, please tell our listeners a little about your background, as well as the origins and evolution of Pet Conspiracy.
I was born in Beijing and raised all over North America since age 7. Lived in Canada, Louisiana, Texas, Chicago, Los Angeles. Moved around quite a lot with my fairly nomadic family. But what shaped my understanding of music was living in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, close to New Orleans. We used to drive there every weekend and I loved it. My parents were poor students, T.A.ing and teaching while trying to get their PHDs so we didn’t have enough money to buy a piano. I used to study piano in China, but because of economics I just began to sing in the US. You didn’t really need an instrument so it costs a lot less money to perform. I joined choirs. It’s hard to believe, but I’m actually classically trained as a singer, even was a vocal arts minor at University. When I graduated, my boyfriend was an indie film maker, animator. We lived in Silverlake, Los Angeles in a house we shared with 7 other artists. . . all unemployed except for me who worked for a artists management firm basically answering phones and delivering scripts. I was offered a job as a MTV VJ in China, and I came back expecting to work for 6 months or a year. I didn’t even move out of the house we were renting. I’ve been here 8 years now.
Pet Conspiracy is actually one of two bands I have. I had another band, formerly called ZIYO, now known as Free the Birds that had a minor bit of fame in the music circles. We were signed to Warner Music and released an EP through Warner though the music was pop rock at the time, something we’re not very proud to admit. At the time, I was just working on my EP with ZIYO in 2007 when I was approached by Huzi to work with him. Pet Conspiracy was originally a side project that started with Huzi, an electronica musician who was then working on his own album. He wanted me to sing hooks for a few of his track on his own album, and later, asked if I wanted to do those tracks live for an event. From our first show, we wanted to do a cross between traditional performance and a bit of stage theatrics and performance art. But after that show, we were approached by so many people to continue the project that we decided to make it more of a serious long term project. Members came, members went, and this final group really locked down I would say just the end of 2008. Which makes us really less than a year and a half old.
What are some of Pet Conspiracy’s musical influences and yours personally?
Glass Candy, Crystal Castles, Nancy Sinatra, Marlene Dietrich, Tom Waits, Melt Banana, Nick Cave, Iggy Pop, and Orf for Pet Conspiracy. My own are Debussy, Nina Simone, The Smiths, U2 (I’m learning to face my past), LCD Soundsystem, Patty Smith, recently inducted into an appreciation for the Boredoms, Godspeed You Black Emperor, Le Tigre & Cindy Sherman. Might change tomorrow through. . . constantly inspired by how much good music is out there.
You also host a radio show in Beijing. First, tell us how you came upon that gig, then when and where we can hear it.
My show was called “The Rock Show”. It used to be broadcast in Shanghai I think as 87.9. . . but I could be wrong. In Beijing it was 88.7, but I just left the show after 4 years of broadcasting so I’m quite sad right now. I got that radio show because I used to have another show on Easy FM called “Sunset Blvd”. I named it after my old address in L.A. I lived on Sunset at the junction of Silverlake and Echo Park. It was quite ghetto but also a great place for music. I used to play a really strange blend on my first radio show, everything from Lou Reed to DJ Nobody to Steve Miller Band. It was basically a bit like “Morning Becomes Eclectic” in the U.S., which is another quite cool radio show. I lost that show because of station politics, and a few years later Huang Feng who was a fan of that show (mostly because of the Steve Miller Band) recommended me to Hit FM as a DJ because he used to like my song selection. I was hired to Hit FM as a special guest DJ for a weekend show. I’m really surprised that it’s lasted this long. My last show’s song list was something like Jay Reatard, the Phenomenal Handclap Band, Holy Fuck, Mika Miko, and Buddy Holly, amongst others. Basically, it’s really not what plays on the mainstream radio in China or even in the U.S., but I had a good strong cult following and I loved doing that show. So I guess I’m glad I had a chance to pollute the airwaves for so long. I’m actually still looking to do the show somewhere else, so if you know of any one who wants to hire a radio DJ, the only requirement is that I can play whatever the Fuck I Want, and no one can touch my song list.
How does that job affect you as a musician, if at all?
It sometimes makes me a bit scattered because I’m constantly listening to music, looking for stuff I think would fit to my show. So the pool of influences is pretty wide. I mean if all you listen to is hardcore, than you can write a hardcore song really easily. But if your listening to everything like me, sometimes when writing, I catch myself jumping around a hundred genres or leaning too heavily on the rules of any one genre. But now, I think as I get older, I have a better idea of what I’m trying to represent in my music and what feels good to me. Despite the screamy bits, I’m actually a big fan of melodies and dramatic harmonic builds and noisy, almost cinematic effects which progressively is less and less rock. But one good thing about this job is that it keeps you up to date and you really get a idea of where the trends are going and what’s bullshit.
Your stage show at MAO Livehouse last November blew a lot of people away, especially the opening salvo. How did you come up with that piece of performance art and what did it mean to you in an allegorical sense, if anything?
I actually came by myself to Shanghai just one day before the show with no idea what we were going to do for the opening. As soon as we walked into MAO Livehouse, I went “wow” and thought I had to fill this big space with something. In Beijing when we work, we have a real stage crew: lighting director, VJ, special effects team, set builders, the works. It takes us 24 hours to set up and a month of planning beforehand with sometimes a 30-man crew. In Shanghai, we knew we weren’t going to have that. So I thought about things I could do then. I looked at the space, and it reminded me a bit of a hive because of the round geometric feeling, so I thought about spiders for some reason. Then I had the idea of dragging a train out from the back of the stage onto the front. So, literally the day of the show in the morning I went around town like a crazy women all by myself buying all the materials for this set-up. It was very last minute, but I think it turned out fairly well.
How much do you design and practice the theatrical portions of your performance, as opposed to just learning to play the songs well?
We run rehearsals, for the different elements, but a lot of what we perform is also very much improvised with the emotion of the moment. There are elements we decide, but things just happen. Like for instance, five gay men jumped onto our stage and got naked, improvised. Most audience nudity is not expected, though encouraged. The songs are pretty much worked out, since much of the music is playback and vocals I wrote, so it’s fairly easy to learn.
Do you see Pet Conspiracy as a political band at all, and do you think bands have a duty to “have a message” in this day and age?
I think before you “have a message” you should figure out what you want to say. I personally think that the arts have been used for political purposes too long in China. And now, maybe artists should be independent of just being another form of political debate. Thinking one “has” to be political is about as ridiculous as all the other government-sponsored drones out there. If you have a point to make about society, about politics, or about life that you believe in and you want to put it into your music, then do it. If you don’t, then put something else in there. Pet Conspiracy is theater, it’s fantasy, it’s fear. It’s a movie, a cabaret, and if people find it political than it’s their interpretation. We leave ourselves a certain amount of space for abstract expression. People can take what they want from it.
You went on record on China Music Radar as having a bad experience as a part of the Pepsi Battle of the Bands, but Free the Birds also cooperated with Puma for a gig at Yuyintang. What are your feelings about bands and corporations, the good and the bad?
It can be good or it can be bad. It’s good when there’s a sense of mutual support, that the brand is not just using the band to promote itself, but also interested in supporting the culture that the band represents. And it offers the bands a certain source of financial income that regular gigs don’t. The cruel fact is, now that music is free, sponsorship is literally what keeps food on the table for a lot of artists. So, before you accuse anyone of selling out, ask yourself how many of their songs you actually purchased.
However, it’s bad when brands overstep and manipulate or disrespect the artists they are using. Certain brands not only do not understand the culture they are trying to manipulate into a selling tool, but, in a way, using the hopes and dreams of certain people without offering them compensation. The fact is for this particular “challenge” none of the bands who performed were compensated for their performance because it was a “competition.” It was basically a free promo for that brand. . . and they (the bands) were treated with utter disrespect. I will say that I got paid for the PUMA gig and I got a lot of free shoes. And the PR guys got really drunk with me afterwards and held it down for Shanghai at Table Fussball. Props.
I see fashion and design as a piece of the overall Pet Conspiracy aura. Do you feel that’s a part of the band’s ethos?
Yeah, most of my band are into clothing, especially small designers and vintage. It gets a bit ridiculous when we’re on tour because they spend 90% of our free time at vintage stores and independent design shops, trying on shoes and skirts. We went to very few tourists spots on our European tour, but got a lot of cool ’70s frames.
If you could have anyone in the fashion or design world design a look for the band, who would it be?
What is Pet Conspiracy working on right now and what is the band’s process for creating songs?
We’re working on an album for winter this year. Huzi usually creates a song structure at home and I come in and make some suggestions, fight with him for a few hours, and finally write the vocals. We work it out some more in rehearsals about what the live bits (drums, guitar, and synth) will be and we test it live, then change things if it doesn’t work.
What do you see as the differences between the Beijing and Shanghai scenes?
Beijing’s Brooklyn and Shanghai’s Manhattan.
When can we expect another Pet Conspiracy show in Shanghai?
Hopefully soon, though everything will probably wait until after festival season, as there are a lot of show dates coming up around then.